Lane Kiffin joined the thousands of Tennessee football fans inside Neyland Stadium with a singular hope Saturday: Please, split the uprights, Chase McGrath.
“Make it this time,” the Ole Miss coach tweeted before McGrath’s wobbly field goal from 40 yards just cleared the crossbar for a 52-49 Tennessee upset of No. 1 Alabama.
Kiffin threw his allegiance behind the Vols all day, saying on ESPN’s “College GameDay” in the morning: “Let’s both beat the state of Alabama today. Go Vols.”
Kiffin did his part first, with Ole Miss beating Auburn 48-34.
It’s not surprising Kiffin, who coached Tennessee in 2009 before ditching the Vols in favor of Southern Cal, would support Tennessee. For one, the third-year Ole Miss coach likes flirting with the Vols from afar. He’s often quick with a supportive word for Tennessee.
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But, more importantly for Kiffin’s present situation, Alabama losing helps Ole Miss’ positioning as both compete for the SEC West crown.
Ole Miss (7-0, 3-0 SEC) now sits alone atop the division, although the Rebels’ schedule stiffens significantly, starting Saturday at LSU (5-2, 3-1).
Vols fans should be shouting “Hotty Toddy” for the next month and a half, rooting for Ole Miss to win the West.
Because if Tennessee (6-0, 3-0) wins the SEC East, it should hope to avoid a rematch with Alabama (6-1, 3-1) in the SEC Championship.
Beating Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide once took all 60 minutes and the help of a sold-out crowd, plus a number of Alabama gaffes.
True, Tennessee left some points on the field, but you don’t want to face Alabama a second time (and then possibly a third time in the College Football Playoff).
Tennessee and Ole Miss face a challenging road to Atlanta. Along with LSU, Ole Miss must play Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State. That back-loaded schedule may come home to roost.
Meanwhile, Tennessee must play undefeated reigning national champion Georgia (7-0, 4-0) on Nov. 5 in Athens.
Ole Miss’ offense is gaining steam, and the Rebels pace the SEC in rushing. Tennessee is the conference’s passing leader. Both operate at a warp-speed tempo.
Ole Miss’ defense, though, showed vulnerability in back-to-back wins against two of the SEC’s weakest members, Vanderbilt and Auburn. And Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, much like Florida’s Anthony Richardson, enjoyed playing against UT’s defense.
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium scoreboard may not be able to keep up if Tennessee and Ole Miss met in Atlanta.
Tennessee is cleansing old wounds this season. It beat Florida for just the second time in the past 18 tries. It snapped a 15-game losing streak against Alabama.
Kiffin reveled in Ole Miss beating Tennessee 31-26 last season in front of a hostile crowd last at Neyland Stadium.
Thanks in no small part to his transfer portal maneuverings, Kiffin has assembled another good team.
Good enough for the Rebels to make Atlanta?
It’s no easy road, but Vols fans should root for that outcome.
Did Nick Saban suffer from poor strategy?
Should Alabama have called for a running play on third-and-10 with 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter to give Will Reichard a closer field goal and make Tennessee burn its second timeout?
Some wondered that after Reichard’s 50-yard field goal sailed right and gave Tennessee possession with 15 seconds and two timeouts. That was enough time for Tennessee to run two plays and set up McGrath’s game winner.
I saw no problem in Alabama’s aggressiveness and keeping the ball in Young’s hands for three straight passing plays from the 32-yard line, all of which were incompletions. And if Jahmyr Gibbs had not dropped a pass on second down, Reichard would have been in closer position.
If we’re going to criticize Saban’s strategy, I’d point to his second-quarter decision to opt for a short field goal that trimmed UT’s lead to 21-10 rather than going for fourth down from the 2.
Three and out
1. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is projected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick, but he’s not playing as if he’s got one foot out the door. Levis already suffered a broken finger and a foot injury this season. After missing one game, he returned Saturday against Mississippi State and injured his left shoulder. He played through injury and helped engineer a 27-17 triumph.
“I got the magic shot and just got back out here. It’s my left shoulder, so who cares,” the right-handed Levis told the SEC Network afterward. “You’re never going to play at 100% when you’re midway through the season in the SEC.”
2. Brian Kelly secured an important victory for his debut season at LSU with the Tigers beating Florida 45-35 at the Swamp. LSU could have filled its coaching vacancy last fall without looking outside the state. Billy Napier was flourishing down the road with the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Instead, LSU spent big to hire Kelly, and Florida hired Napier. So, beating Napier was an important feather in Kelly’s cap, along with being an important bounce-back performance following last week’s drubbing at the hands of Tennessee.
3. The Big Ten remains a potential thorn in the SEC’s quest to produce two playoff qualifiers for the third time in the past six seasons. Ohio State is No. 1 and Michigan is No. 3 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. They’ll meet on Nov. 26 in what’s shaping up as a clash of undefeated teams, but the loser may be able to claim a back-door bid to the fourth playoff spot.
The “Topp Rope,” is his twice-weekly SEC football column publishing throughout the USA TODAY Network. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter.